The Casey-Holding Theory of Pauline High-Context Culture
We were treated recently to another dose of apologia run amok in Maurice Casey’s “frightful” diatribe against Earl Doherty. Following in the footsteps of fellow apologist, J.P. Holding, Casey explains away Paul’s silence regarding the earthly Jesus by a misapplication of Edward T. Hall’s cultural context paradigm (ref. Beyond Culture).
According to the Casey-Holding Theory, Paul was silent about Jesus in his epistles because (quoting Casey):
Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written.
By the time Paul was writing his letters “in a ‘high-context’ realm,” Holding states:
There was no need for Paul to make reference to the life-details of Jesus or recount his teachings, for that had been done long ago.
However, in “Interpreting Evidence: An Exchange with Christian Apologist JP Holding,” Kris D. Komarnitsky neatly brushes aside the argument by using Holding’s own words against him, writing:
JP goes on to argue that the “high-context” society Paul and the Corinthians lived in can account for Paul’s silence on the discovered empty tomb. But as JP admits, even in high-context societies “repeat of detail would . . . occur if some need were present to repeat.” This just leads us back to the question above. If Paul is trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection, he definitely has a need to repeat information. And in fact that is exactly what we see Paul do. He repeats the basic community creed that Jesus was raised and that this has been confirmed in the scriptures (1 Cor 15:4). He lists those who Jesus appeared to (1 Cor 15:5-8) which, being an already established Christian community, the Corinthians must have heard about before. Drawing on the authority of these witnesses, Paul then challenges the Corinthians, “Now if Christ is proclaimed [by all of these people] as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12). [emphasis mine]
Freudian Kettle Logic
We can be sure that something is amiss when we’re confronted with kettle logic. On the one hand, we’re told that Paul’s silence is quite understandable in his “high-context culture.” On the other hand, we’re told that Paul was not silent about Jesus. Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? says Paul know many traditions about Jesus. He writes:
Paul indicates that he received some of these traditions from those who came before him, and it is relatively easy to determine when. Much of what Paul has to say about Jesus, therefore, stems from the same early layer of tradition that we can trace, completely independently, in the Gospels
Even more impressive than what Paul says about Jesus is whom he knew. Paul was personally acquainted, as I’ve pointed out, with Peter and James. Peter was Jesus’s closest confidant throughout his public ministry, and James was his actual brother. Paul knew them for decades, starting in the mid 30s CE. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up. Paul knew his best friend and his brother. (p. 132, Nook edition)
Today’s NT scholarship is nearly unanimous in its incongruity: (1) Paul was silent about Jesus, but that’s completely understandable given his cultural context and (2) Paul was not silent about Jesus, because look at all the stuff he wrote about him. It’s hard to argue with inconsistent assertions.
Paul’s Semi-silence as a Useful Argument for the Authenticity
On the gripping hand, E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies in Studying the Synoptic Gospels find Paul’s limited references to Jesus in the epistles quite useful for determining which material in the NT goes back to the historical Jesus. (Incidentally, this is a useful and well-written book — highly recommended.) Sanders and Davies write:
Paul shows remarkably little interest (at least in the letters which survive) in the teaching of the historical Jesus. He quite often refers to Scripture as proof of his points, and not infrequently to Christian experience, whether his own or that of his converts. Only three times in the surviving correspondence does he explicitly quote “the Lord” and then attribute to him a saying which is also in the gospels. Thus we cannot think that he freely invented sayings by “the Lord.” (p. 323, emphasis mine)
For the authors, Paul’s reticence with respect to Jesus tends to show he knew some of Jesus’ sayings, but not others. In their judgment it shows Paul was not inclined to make up pronouncements to further his case. At the same time, if he knew of a saying from “the Lord” that would seal the deal, he was not averse to using it. That said, Paul seems to have had gaps in his “independent” sources. They continue:
Either the collection of sayings material which surfaced in the gospels had not yet been made, or he was ignorant of them. For a lot of arguments, sayings by Jesus would have been useful. “The Son of man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mark 2.28) could have stood him in good stead in debating whether or not keeping the “days” was required (Gal. 4.10; Rom. 14.5-6). His failure to cite it helps establish his substantial independence of the sayings material as we now have it. (p. 323)
Hence, for Sanders and Davies, those few points at which the gospel and Pauline traditions intersect are of great interest, because:
[W]hen Paul cites a saying by the Lord, he provides the greatest possible independent attestation of it. (p. 323)
Remember, I’m not quoting Earl Doherty. Apparently, back in 1989 mainstream NT scholars could call attention to Paul’s silence and admit that it was a feature of his writing that deserved to be explained (not explained away, à la the Casey-Holding Theory). And not only could scholars draw attention to the silence, but they could also admit that it was because either the sayings collections that made their way into the canonical gospels “had not yet been made, or because he was ignorant of them.”
Let that sink in for a minute. The senior whiz at The Processed Cheeses Institute mercilessly mocks Doherty for saying essentially the same thing. He sneers and guffaws at Earl’s “incompetence” and his inability confront modern scholarship. Confront this, Maurice.
Of course, Sanders and Davies’ analysis fits in with their overall understanding of multiple attestation, which to them signifies authenticity. However, as we have noted here on Vridar time and time again, it merely signifies antiquity. Is it older? Yes. Does it go back to the historical Jesus? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
Everyone’s a Winner!
So, was Paul silent about Jesus? There are three definitive answers: Yes, No, and Sometimes. And as luck would have it, no matter which answer you pick, they all prove the historical Jesus. Isn’t scholarship wonderful?